Besides serving as a catalyst for the modern LGBTQ rights movement, the Stonewall Riots had a less obvious effect: They triggered an unprecedented wave of sexual freedom, one that overtook the streets of New York City for decades to follow.
Prior generations of gay men had been raised to believe their desires were something to be ashamed of. And though cruising and gay sex scenes had existed long before Stonewall, soon after that queer revolt in the summer of 1969, a sexually frustrated community finally felt liberated. Their shame became pride, and free sexual expression exploded onto the streets of Manhattan. Horny gay men turned the abandoned area along the Hudson River piers into a hedonistic paradise—an incubator for libido, sexual pride, and testosterone that had been bottled up for generations.
Those days, however, would likely be lost if it weren't for the work of photographer Alvin Baltrop. At the Hudson River Piers is a new exhibit of his photography at New York's Galerie Buchholz, and it presents a unique snapshot of gay hookup culture in Manhattan from the mid 70s through the late 80s.
A critically overlooked queer African American photographer, Baltrop spent over ten years documenting cruising scenes in abandoned warehouses along Manhattan's West Side piers, during the sex-crazed post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS era.
Born in 1948 to a working-class Bronx family, Baltrop started taking photographs while still in high school. In 1972, after returning home to New York City from three years served as a medic for the US Navy, he enrolled at the School of Visual Arts but dropped out a year later. That's when he developed an almost obsessive interest in the Hudson Piers universe and started photographing the city's new gay playground, rife with cruising, explicit sex, S&M, drugs, and prostitution.
Jonathan Weinberg, curator of the 2012 exhibition The Piers: Art and Sex along the New York Waterfront at the Leslie+Lohman Museum in New York City, explained in a curator's statement that the empty warehouses along the Hudson River also became the birthplace for a new generation of artists, including Gordon Matta-Clark, Peter Hujar, and Joan Jonas. The artists in that exhibition, Weinberg noted, "were attracted to the piers because they appeared to be outside or beyond social control—they were spaces of freedom that in their ruined state also served as apt symbols for the seeming collapse of modernity."
For over a decade, Baltrop lived among that freedom and registered its culture and grittiness as only an insider could. And while most of his photographs were small and black and white, his personality was big and full of color. When he died of cancer (and in poverty) in 2004, a New York Times obituary described him as "a tall, funky, elegant mix of Africana and military," who "held court from [his] stoop, acting as a sex educator, minor medic and general mensch to rootless neighborhood youths, especially those who had been kicked out of their houses for being gay."
Baltrop's work never got the recognition it deserved while he was alive, and he fought ample racism from within the art world. "Some gallery owners doubted that Baltrop had shot his own photographs," his close friend and assistant Randal Wilcox wrote in Revista Atlántica in 2012. "One asked him why had stolen a white photographer's portfolio and attempted to pass off someone else's work as his own. Some institutions and individuals expressed interest in his work, only to try and steal it."
In 1977, Baltrop had a solo show at the Glines, a Manhattan nonprofit organization for gay arts, and in 1992, he showed photos at the Bar, a popular gay bar on the Lower East Side where he'd also worked as a bouncer. But it wasn't until 2008, four years after his death, that his work saw wider consideration. With a photo on the cover of Artforum, an accompanying essay by Douglas Crimp asserted that Baltrop's photos show the convergence "of artistic and sexual experimentation in the declining industrial spaces of Manhattan during the 1970s."
Yona Backer, a prominent art curator who has worked with the Alvin Baltrop Trust as an adviser since 2008, agrees. She attributes the success of his work to a combination of factors: his relationship with the Hudson Piers community ("he wasn't taking pictures as an outsider peering in, but as a participant," she said) and his use of lights and landscape ("using the architectural elements that were a part of the pier, as well as thinking about the contrast between light and dark," she told me. "That was a way to create and evoke certain kinds of emotions.")
"When you search [Baltrop's] photographs looking for the activity, it's not unlike the experience itself of going to be in that place and seeing what's going on," said Tom Bianchi, another photographer whose work sometimes touches themes of gay desire. "You are discovering the erotic activity. It's very exciting and beautiful."
"They are formally gorgeous, and I love the fact that they are grainy and it's not about making perfect photographs," he continued. "It's about recording the experience."
For Joseph Lovett, director of Gay Sex in the 70s, a 2005 documentary about gay sex in the era between Stonewall and the AIDS crisis, Baltrop's work is important because he was a great artist who "wanted to show things how they were." He wasn't interested in "titillation, hiding or showboating," Lovett said. As Randal Wilcox put it in a 2009 interview, "the funny thing about his photographs is that his main talent—he had this very refined aesthetic sensibility—[and it] did not eclipse what he was trying to show you. The photograph is very formally composed, but it doesn't hide the truth of what he's showing you."
Baltrop himself was one of the subjects interviewed for Lovett's documentary. Lovett tells him that some people have talked about the pier days "as the most libertine period that the Western world has ever seen since Rome." In the footage, Baltrop pauses, thinks for a moment, before smiling and agreeing: "It was…"
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